Once the political storm over public education clears, Utah parents could see a few changes in classrooms and the family checkbook.

But the beauty of the changes will be in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, parents of children with a disability can get up to a $5,400 government check to send them to private schools.

"It will help so many people," said Cheryl Smith, mother of the boy with autism after whom HB115, "Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships," was named.

On the other hand, the measure is estimated to cost $1.5 million.

Also, students in Utah charter schools will be funded on par with those in regular public schools.

But some school leaders say the funding comes at the expense of regular public schools. They point to $400,000 taken from summer programs to fund charter schools.

Utah moms and dads also were spared the prospect of paying more in income taxes to send their children to school.

And schools got a $2.1 billion budget: $106 million above last year's budget, or a more than 5 percent increase in the basic program.

But Utah public education, which remains in last place nationally for per-student spending, could have had more money.

Neighborhood schools could have had an extra $80 million to help struggling students under a bill that sought to ax the child and federal tax deductions on state income taxes. They also could have had a few million bucks 18 months from now under a bill that would have let the basic property tax revenues grow with the housing market.

Still, people aren't off the tax man's hook.

"The people haven't avoided a tax increase. It's just a matter of who levies it," said Granite Board of Education President Sarah Meier, who lobbies at the Capitol for the Utah School Boards Association.

School districts that want a piece of the $15 million in state funds for a reading initiative, aimed at helping the 20,600 first- through third-graders who read below grade level, will have to kick in their own funds if they want more than $29,200, as legislative action stood early Wednesday evening. That might mean raising property taxes in some areas.

That's due to a compromise between legislators and Gov. Olene Walker, who wanted the state to front a full $30 million for reading help.

"If in fact that program takes $30 million, it should have been the state's responsibility," Meier said. "They created the expectation, and now they don't want to fund it."

Parents also might hear from teachers through the 2004 campaign season.

District employees received a one-time pay bonus worth more than $17 million, or around $300 or $400 per worker, the State Office of Education estimates.

But teachers may not receive a permanent raise. While the weighted pupil unit — the formula for per-student funding — went up 1.5 percent, the half percent is expected to go to rising health care costs. And since individual districts work out teacher contracts, it's anyone's guess whether a raise is coming.

"I think teachers will see no or very little increase in their salaries, and at some point, some of our best teachers will decide to move on (because they) . . . can't continue to do it for this pay," Utah Education Association President Pat Rusk said.

"We are going to hold legislators accountable (at election time) for what happened this session, and what didn't happen this session."

Also in store for Utah residents:

• Schools must continue to participate in No Child Left Behind's strict testing and public accountability requirements. Districts can opt out but will lose their share of $106 million in federal money. Legislators will study the issue.

• Elementary schools can place junk food in vending machines available to children. A bill seeking to ban that failed.

• People might get some clarity on how tuition tax credits could affect Utah's bottom line. As of early evening, legislators had given $150,000 to commission an outside study of the issue.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com